Ultimately, this is about fathers and sons and family friends, coming to a partial peace with who you are and who they are, and a funeral. It came about because of a phone call made to someone close to me who has traveled to a legendary land. The place where I grew up. She is in the same geographic place, but I suspect that the place I’m thinking of exists only in my memory, and part of that in my imagination. It starts out reminiscing about home and gradually spirals out from there through old family friends and finally to a funeral. Remember, funerals are about the living sharing a goodbye to someone after they have gone through that final, mysterious passage that we all will go through, then regrouping and going on. The events at the funeral are factual to the best of my knowledge. Oh yeah, the funeral was my Dad’s, in 1992. Don’t forget your Dad on Father’s Day next Sunday, the 18th. There may be some misspellings and other errors, I apologize in advance.
I had a long, long-distance talk this morning with my wife, Audrey. Its her first time she’s really been back to where I grew up in eastern Kansas where a 10-minute bike ride would get you out of town into the country. She grew up in suburban Denver.
She’s doing a month long Field Geology class (ES747) which is the last course work for her Master’s in Earth Sciences (with an emphasis in Remote Sensing). The program is taught by Distance Learning via the web, but obviously you can’t do field geology without being there. She’s also taken several geology courses through the UNLV Geosciences department.
Emporia is about 35 miles southeast of Osage City where I grew up. Topeka is 35 miles north of Osage City. If you wanted anything besides the basics (groceries, gas, light hardware or a pharmacy) you had to go one way or another. My Dad was a Civil Engineer thanks to the G. I. Bill and worked for the Air Force at Forbes AFB (now closed) just south of Topeka most of his career. We seldom went to Emporia so I really don’t know it as well.
Emporia is in rolling hills at the south end of the Flint Hills where they transition into the Osage Cuestas. Lots of Cottonwood, Oak. and Hickory in the stream bottoms that dissect the relatively flat tall-grass prairies above. Things like ticks and chiggers too. And fireflies at night. Summer nights are magic. This is Dances with Wolves kind of country. Land of the Vision Quest. The jumping off point (Council Grove) for the Santa Fe Trail was about 30 miles north northwest of Emporia.
She’s having a pretty good experience so far. Ted and Patty Davis, very long term friends of the family, came down to Emporia to meet her. Patty and my Mom are just like sisters. Ted is a huge man of mostly German descent who farmed the land his Granddad homesteaded until most of it got taken by the Corps for Melvern Lake. When I say huge, I mean in that barrel-chested fashion thats common there at least, but not fat. Corn-fed, college football lineman kind of big. I’ve seen him carry two hay bales (back when they were small) in each dinner-plate sized hand the six or seven steps from the pickup to the back corral fence before popping the wires off as they go over the fence and turning around and doing it again. Just as a routine ‘got lots to do, can’t waste time’ thing. They’re both smart people, but Patty does most of the talking. They’re both in their early 70s and have slowed down a bit, but not much. In 1972 the decision was made to close Forbes when my Dad had about eight years to go for retirement. He didn’t have much choice if he wanted a pension but to be sent to Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas in 1973. That was also the year I graduated from High School. Ted and Patty are really the only people Mom and Dad managed to stay in touch with from back home. I haven’t been back to Kansas since 1983 when my Grandfather died.
When Dad got sick in January of 1992, the message really didn’t get passed along with sufficient gravity, or perhaps it wasn’t fully heard by Ted and Patty. Sometimes news like that doesn’t always get fully processed. When Dad’s cancer was diagnosed it had already metastasized and was in his lymph system. I had landed a fantastic job with the University system less than a year before and ended four years of intermittent employment at nothing jobs. We were working four 10-hour weeks so I was able to fly down every third week.
Death is a gruesome thing and never worse (I’m told by exerts) than watching it happen to you same-sex parent. There is a lot that can be told here, but suffice to say Dad and I got to say all the things that needed to be said to bring my 37 years of living and his 69 years of living to the place where we were finally not just father and son and friendly, but actual good friends. Friends who understood each other. It was amazing and changed my life. The cancer spread very fast and he died in May of 1992. I was (mostly) relieved it was over. Mom was numb. Ted and Patty were devastated. They hadn’t had it down in time to say goodbye.
Dad was an atheist, at least he professed to be. I think he was probably some flavor of animist rather than a Jew like his Grandfather, or Christian like his wife. We had him cremated, as he wished, and on a drizzling gray morning in May when all were there, including Patty and Ted, to scatter his ashes in a favorite place he requested. He had privately requested a Viking burial and Mom had poo-pooed the idea to his face in the hospital. He couldn’t really talk because of the radiation and he had some sort of breathing tube in his throat. He got so agitated he made the nurse take out the tube and he croaked “God damn it, I mean it!”. Whoaaaa, I think he means it. He was horribly emaciated with way too many tubes stuck in him and the whole thing made Mom cry, but I got the message. A flaming boat/bier wasn’t really feasible, but I knew the real message was to not put him in some suit in a box and have a Minister he had probably called an idiot more than once get the last word. I had done some research and found an account of a Norse burial rite that would gain a man who had not died in battle admittance to Valhalla. I have no idea if it was historically accurate or completely fanciful. It didn’t really matter. I just wanted to say some words that Dad would have liked. The ceremony had a constraint that it had to be performed by the eldest son, so I was home free. I’m an only child. The day before Mom had talked about what she would like to have happen and admonished me to not “do something stupid trying to make one of your little points. For God’s sake this is your Daddy’s funeral!” I assured her that things would be OK.
You could see where the Sun was behind the cloud cover to the east and we sort of instinctively formed a semi-circle open to that direction, which also looked over a fairly scenic panorama. Mom had me read a poem about angels and going home. Some of Dad’s friends said some nice things about him and how we would all miss him. Most people were dabbing at their eyes and Mom and a couple others were sobbing into handkerchiefs. I had been holding the box with his cremains and stepped forward. I held the box towards the Sun and muttered the first lines of the rite. Mom knew I was going to do something that Dad had asked me to do, but I figured I could give her the details later if she wanted to know. Everybody else was white suburban middle-class folks and I didn’t really want to offend them by being too different, even though everybody knew how Dad felt about organized religion. I had this Buck sheath knife that Dad had had for years that I finally found in his tackle box about an hour before. I opened the box from the Crematorium with the knife. It was good I had that knife because I don’t think that box was designed to be reopened once it was closed. I scattered what was in there while I went through the ceremony. I ran out of ceremony while I still had a task so I started saying thanks for all the things I could remember that Dad had done for me. Tears were running down my cheeks. Finally, the box was empty.
The last part of the rite was where the eldest son is supposed to break his father’s battle sword and throw it into the pyre. Thats why I had his Buck knife. I hadn’t really thought this out and I realized I had no idea how to deliberately break a knife, at least without a vise and a hammer or something. So I knelt down on one knee and plunged the knife into the ground and I tried to bend the handle over. To my amazement it snapped off with kind of a low ‘thunk’. I stood up and said the last line of the rite, which is what you’re supposed to say as you throw your father’s sword into the fire, aloud. “I am the eldest son. It is my right to ask for this.” I dropped the knife handle on the ground.
The Sun usually didn’t break through the clouds until late morning and I hadn’t planned for this either, but the Sun broke through the clouds as I said that line and stayed out for about a minute and a half. The whole combination of events – the poem, testimonials, my thing – had taken perhaps 10 minutes. But as I ended things and the Sun broke through, everybody’s sobs gave way to outright bawling. The next thing I know, Ted, this huge friend of my family is crushing me in this bear hug. “We thought we had more time for your Dad, we thought we had more time, we thought we had more time.”
Later, back at Mom’s house which was full of people and food they had brought and Patty had made, I ran into Ted in the kitchen. “I’ve never told you this, I never felt much need to. Jim (my Dad) was always real proud of you. I want you to know I am too. You’re a good son and you did a good thing today.”
These people know me and my family. We have history… I cannot explain how good what he said to me in that kitchen feels eight years later.
I’m telling you all this because Patty and Ted really liked Audrey when they met her yesterday. “Oh my gosh Hal, shes really NICE! How did you pull that off?” Much laughter over the phone. It feels really good when your people are happy for and with you. They’ll seldom say so to your face, so its nice when it happens. Audrey mentioned early in the phone conversation that Ted and Patty seemed to think I was pretty special and after a couple of hours they were teasing her about needing to make sure she was ‘good enough to be married to Hal’. So she replied by saying ‘I think he’s pretty special’ or something like that. Then Audrey said that Patty patted Ted on the arm and said “We’re pretty proud of him” and Ted added “That’s right. I told him so once.” They both got quiet and Ted excused himself from the restaurant table. Audrey asked me, “Something was going on there. What was that about?” …
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t for a moment think that Norse Gods were evoked or that anything ‘happened’ other than natural phenomena. The knife broke because thats what happens when you bend the hilt off-axis to the blade when the blade is stuck in something. The sun happened to came out at a time that seemed to a small group of people to be fortuitous, though occasionally a part of me has chosen to think my Dad was somehow saying ‘Thanks’. I am not a shaman, but if they offer to pay me to be one on TV I’ll consider it. I do not communicate with ‘the other side’. I have a hard time saying what I mean on ‘this’ side. If you hear ‘voices from the other side’ please see a psychiatrist or therapist. I’m publicly a Buddhist priest and I want to emphasize that I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with organized religion, especially Christianity, though I’m sure if my Dad were here he would express a different opinion. I do feel that we all stand in awe of something incomprehensible and find different voices to express that awe.
This story has special meaning for me because the events ended up being rather cinematic which is cool, it serves as a vehicle to discuss the complicated relationship between generations and people, especially between Fathers and Sons, and finally, because it concerns the last thing I got to do for my Dad and I got it right. Don’t forget your Dad on Father’s Day (Americans celebrate it next Sunday, June 18). If you don’t especially get along with your father, at least try to reach out to him. You never know how many times it will take to get through. If it happens, I guarantee it will be worthwhile. Remember to be nice to one another, we don’t have much time while we’re here.
[this has had some minor edits since it was posted for grammar and clarification]